In recent years, manga and anime are accepted as a part of Japanese culture in Japanese society, even though they were once considered a bad influence. Inside Japan’s music scene, anisong (anime songs) has been established as a popular music genre, and it’s not unusual for one to top the charts nowadays.
The anisong duo SCREEN mode has gained momentum in such a ruthlessly competitive anisong industry. The duo consists of Masatomo Ota, who has also composed and produced many songs for popular singers such as voice actress Yukari Tamura and Suzuko Mimori, and vocalist Yuu Hayashi (under the stage name YOU, pronounced like the English word ‘you’), who started his career as a child actor and is now renowned as a voice actor.
They have produced opening songs for Kuroko’s Basketball, Myriad Colors Phantom World, Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma the Second Plate, Bungo Stray Dogs, and this season’s Vatican Miracle Examiner, so many readers must have heard their songs.
I interviewed the two members of SCREEN mode regarding anisongs. I’d like for readers, especially aspiring anisong singers, to read their interview.
Anisong is a key to memories
-Would you mind introducing yourself briefly?
I’m YOU, the vocalist. It has been three and a half years since we formed SCREEN mode. Fortunately, I’ve been singing many theme songs for anime so far.
As a voice actor, I have voiced Ryunosuke Tanaka from Haikyu!!, Kouji Touno from Cheer Boys!!, Peter Pan from Return to the Never Land, and so on.
I’m Masatomo and I play guitar. I compose and produce music.
-How did you two become a duo?
While working as a music producer, I began to think, ‘I want to start something myself’, so I asked for advice from Lantis, a music label for Japanese musicians, anime soundtracks,and video game soundtracks. They liked my ideas and while we were auditioning, I met YOU. I loved his great singing ability and versatile voice, so we ended up becoming a duo.
At that time, Lantis were looking for the theme song for Gingitsune, so we created the song for our debut.
-How do you receive offers for theme songs? What’s the process in creating new songs?
In most cases, almost 100% of the time, a record company makes an offer first, and then I compose the song.
I compose the music first. I always read the source material, if there is any. I also read other works of the same author as much as I can to know what they are thinking. I want to translate their thoughts into my own song.
Sometimes, I’m given detailed instructions. In that case, I stick to their requirements as much as possible. In the case of an original anime which doesn’t have any information, I stretch my imagination to create a song. Occasionally, I have a discussion with the staff from the anime production company and the staff from the record label.
As for lyrics, first I read the source material to understand its overall image and subject matter, what it wants to tell us. I write lyrics that speak for its protagonist, or pick up words from the source material.
-It can be said that anisong is unique to Japan as a music genre. Do you have any special consideration when creating anisongs?
I don’t distinguish anisong and other genres when creating music. I create music that conveys the anime work, after all. For instance, if I were to make rules or formats in order to create an anisong, like ‘create it in this way and it will sound like an anisong’, I focus on techniques and not the sentiment. I think I must focus on the sentiment that the work wants to tell us, and its world.
I consider anisong as ‘a key to a memory’. Take the Gundam anime franchise for example. It’s hard to remember what happened in detail instantly in each series, as each story is quite long. However, we can remember what happened when we listen to its theme song. I think that’s the reason why anisong music attracts us so much. When people hear ‘MYSTERIUM’ in a few years time, they will remember Vatican Miracle Examiner and what the anime is like; I want to create such music.
I compose music focusing on melodies, therefore songs have significant influences on my music. There are clear differences between music which focuses on instrumental parts and is composed for a song. I’m a composer who’d rather like to create songs. Recently, there are songs for vocaloids, which are impossible for humans to sing. However, I want to stick to a melody that humans can sing. I won’t compromise on these points as a composer, as well as a member of SCREEN mode. I’d be glad if our listeners could sense our belief in our songs.
I’m not conscious about whether it’s anisong or not when I’m singing. I’m thinking about how I can convey the music Masatomo creates utilizing my abilities. I’ve been watching Hironobu Kageyama, who is a senior member of my record label, sing since I was a child. He’s my idol and I’ve had respect for him since I was a kid. He sings a wide variety of anisong, from the typical genre to newer forms of it, but with unchanged passion. I sing now in the hopes that, one day, I can catch up to him.
-Do you think your voice acting career is advantageous to you as a singer, YOU?
I’ve been acting since I was 5 years old. I think my acting career enhances my power of expression. I must thank my parents. [laugh]
-How do you switch from a voice actor to a vocalist?
As a bystander, I noticed an apparent change in him. I also want to know how he himself sees this change. When I asked him lightheartedly to say a line from his role during a live event, he said a line which sounded totally different from the role. [laugh] I presume he needs to brace himself to play a role.
I suppose I unintentionally switch to voice actor mode. I’ve been standing in front of a microphone and saying lines while watching images since I was a child. I guess when I try to perform a role in different places, I might feel embarrassed, or think too much, which results in my bad acting. I think it’s the place that makes me switch to a voice actor.
Although not a voice acting job, when I played a clown for the new music video, I felt as if I were possessed by someone. Perhaps, it was because I had created an image of the clown in me beforehand, and I felt as if my body was moving without me thinking. I think I must have had the same feeling while I was voice acting.
That’s why you can’t act normally when I casually ask you to play a role, because the character hasn’t descended to earth. [laugh]
Every time you ask me, I feel sad about the result. I don’t sound like the character, even though I was the actual person who is responsible for the role. [laugh]
Regarding the differences between voice acting and singing, when I voice act, I synchronize my feelings with the role I play, whereas when I sing, I have to be myself with my own voice to convey songs, therefore my emotion was exposed overtly or I feel tense at times.
-Could you tell us any stories regarding ‘MYSTERIUM’, the opening theme song for Vatican Miracle Examiner which is airing this season.
I like Europe and have actually visited the Vatican myself. I composed a song which can be understood only by those who have visited it. I express my respect to Christian music in the song, as well as on the B-side.
Compared to SCREEN mode’s usual speedy songs, what makes ‘MYSTERIUM’ different is the change of rhythm at the bridge section, so I put a lot of effort into this part. If I sang it as it were, it wouldn’t fit the image of the song and this particular section. I tried many ways to sing this part and when I had a go with a singing technique called lowering glissando (pitch bend), I felt that that was what I was looking for. It was hard work because I had to successfully perform a lower glissando in a short space of time, as the pacing between the words is quite fast.
Meanwhile, I sang the song in a serious voice while keeping up the speed and attacking some points to the rhythm. I would be glad if people understand these things I tried to consider.
-I was drawn into the music video, as it tells a dramatic story. What considerations did you put into the video?
SCREEN mode has always included a story in its music videos recently. We wanted ‘MYSTERIUM’ to be impressive and stay in the listeners’ minds, so we discussed with the director about making a video which embodies the lyrics, so that people over the world can feel something from the song. We were actively involved in the video-making process with the director.
We want to create videos with reality. If we sing in a grass field or a factory, it doesn’t have any realism, as we usually don’t sing somewhere like that. For this music video, it has the action scenes and I’m pursuing someone. I think such scenes make the video feel less fake and more realistic.
Furthermore, I want to put my thoughts, not only into the song, but also into the video. Prior to creating the music video, I decided on ‘a theme behind the main theme’, like standing again even after receiving multiple punches he gets during a battle, and ‘intention’, like never giving up in a severe situation.
I’m not a director, so I have to largely rely on the director to create the video. However, I make detailed requests like, ‘this one could be omitted, but that one must be included’.
I read the comments for our music video on YouTube and someone commented in English that YOU gets beaten up in every video. I was quite happy to read such a comment. [laugh] If our music videos were just singing and playing guitar, such a comment wouldn’t be posted.
I actually can sing without being beaten! [laugh] But I like the comment, as it demonstrates the person who gave the comment must have watched our other videos. It’s a trilogy of Yuu Hayashi being beaten. [laugh]
The reactions to us from abroad are on the rise. We’ve been to China several times, and the other day, we had Chinese audience members at our solo live show in Japan.
-Are there any differences between fans overseas and fans in Japan?
They are the same. I think the fans overseas enjoy our songs just the same as our fans in Japan.
We had live shows in Shanghai and Taiwan and many audiences love anisong and had memorized the lyrics in Japanese. When I said jokes in Japanese, they laughed, and when I excited the audience, their reactions were the same as if in Japan.
Some of our songs have an English version, which were uploaded online. We always have a desire to deliver our songs outside of Japan.
-Do you have any plans for overseas expansion? Do you have any particular country you want to visit?
We’ll go anywhere in the world upon request!
I’d love to visit East Asia more often, as we are so close to each other. I personally like European countries, and they hold Japan Expo and other events related to Japan, so I want to visit there as well. I also hope to go to the Middle East, as I haven’t been to that area before.
-Could you give a message to the fans abroad?
I’ll go anywhere in the world immediately to deliver my voice if you send for me!
Bring it on! Please listen to the English version of ‘Rough Diamonds’ and ‘Naked Dive’!